TIFF Update - Day 8: The Police Officer's Wife, A Promise, Blind Detective, and A Wolf at the Door
Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau in Blind Detective
Editor's Note: We can't all make it to the Toronto International Film Festival (which is too bad, since it's where some of the best films of the next year will be shown). But CT has the next best thing: daily updates during the Festival from our critic Ken Morefield. Stay tuned for the next week for capsule reviews and reflections on some of the world's most important movies.
The Police Officer's Wife, directed by Philip Gröning
A Promise, directed by Patrice Leconte
Blind Detective, directed by Johnnie To
A Wolf at the Door, directed by Fernando Coimbra
If you had told me before the festival started that my favorite film from Day 8 would be a Hong Kong riff on a buddy cop movie, I probably would have replied that "anything is possible." But I wouldn't have believed you.
My (snobbish) bad.
In Johnnie To's latest, Andy Lau plays the titular Blind Detective with a rare combination of cheek, humor, and narcissistic bravado. He is hired by a rich female inspector to help him close a cold case. American movies rarely mix comedy and crime, but To's film does so exceptionally well, and it throws in some romantic comedy to boot. Chong (Lau) visualizes the crimes and gains insights by reenacting them to understand better what he can't see. Director To sometimes shows the crime as it is visualized in Chong's head, a device that ought to play like a gimmick but instead breathes life into the criminal procedural. The wild and often sudden shifts from slapstick to serious also work far better than they should.
Most of all, though, there is the partnership at the center. Sammi Cheng's Ho is a unique take on the generic female cop role. She is both Watson to Chong's Sherlock and Archie Goodwin to his physically incapable Nero Wolfe. Chong's disability and Ho's emotional vulnerability make for some interesting twists on gender stereotypes.
At TIFF there are so many prestige films, it can be easy to forget that it is okay for movies to be entertaining. Boy, was Blind Detective fun.
Fun is about the farthest word from describing Philip Gröning's The Police Officer's Wife, a three-hour portrait of marriage purgatory. Gröning's last film, Into Great Silence, was one of those friendship dealbreaker sort of films, so passionate were its admirers. The Police Officer's Wife shares with that film a pace that would have to be double to aspire to "leisurely,"; I saw more walkouts at that screening than any other in the festival.*
It's not a bad film, though, and I have to wonder what those who walked out were expecting. Organized into fifty-eight (or maybe fifty-nine?) "chapters," each which could be a short film unto itself, Wife chronicles with elaborate detail the ugliness beneath the domestic façade we project to the world. I did find the third hour a little hard to take, since once the core of the story had revealed itself there was not much to do but wait to see which version of its one and only possible ending the film would deliver. Some will discuss the meaning of the last chapter and whether or not (and when) the film moves from the literal to . . . something else.
Ultimately, the conclusion of the plot was, for me, irrelevant. Gröning's achievement is in his visuals; I contend the viewing experience wouldn't be changed substantively were it a silent film. Still, three hours is a long trek for material this dark.
Patrice Leconte's A Promise has Alan Rickman, Rebecca Hall, and Richard Madden (Rob Stark in Game of Thrones) and still can't seem to find enough passion between the three of them to spark a lover's quarrel. The film reads like a Merchant-Ivory homage—Hall even sounds like Emma Thompson at times—but the resemblance is only plot deep.
It is a hard but necessary thing in an adultery drama to make the cheaters sympathetic. This is usually done by either: a) making the cuckold (usually the male) a jerk; b) making the lovers heroic in their resistance to temptation; or c) making the circumstances that separate the lovers cosmic in scope. A Promise goes after "b" and "c" but only after having all three sides of the love triangle play with fire for so long that you (or at least I) end up thinking they got all the unhappiness they deserved. There's a sermon lesson in A Promise about the differences between emotional and sexual adultery, and I suspect Stefan Zweig's novel (A Journey Into the Past) does a fuller job at explaining the emotional consequences of the lover's (non-)decisions than does the film.
The third act reads like an epilogue rather than a conclusion to the story; a smarter film would have given us less slippery-slope flirtations in the first act and more emotionally suspicious barriers in the last. Hall needs to be in more movies, though, and I would pay to watch Alan Rickman eat his soup.
I mention the Brazilian film A Wolf at the Door in passing, not because I suspect anyone in North America outside the festival circuit will ever see it, but because some cheeky provocateur somewhere is going to try to call it a "pro-life" film. The film does rather horrifically juxtapose the grisly fates of two different children, and I suppose one could make a socio-political statement out of the way we gasp at one and only grimace at the other. Really, though, some things just shouldn't be reduced to character motivations for the domestic horror/revevenge genre (think Fatal Attraction meets Ransom).
*There is a strange calculus to a festival walkout. On the one hand, people have expended a lot of time and money to get to a screening. On the other, with nearly three hundred films to choose from, those less concerned with financial costs have a lot more inducements to throw in the towel early and seek palatable fare elsewhere.
On deck: Annette Bening and Ed Harris in The Face of Love; Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin gets a cinematic adaptation.
Day 1: Closed Curtain
Day 2: The Last of the Unjust and Mission Congo
Day 3: The Past, Violette, Young & Beautiful, and The Double
Day 4:Watermark, Can a Song Save Your Life?, and Belle
Day 5: Devil's Knot, Night Moves, and The Dark Matter of Love
Day 6: Friends from France and Under the Skin
Day 7: Ladder to Damascus, Kill Your Darlings, Walesa. Man of Hope, and Jodorowsky's Dune
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.